But education for whom? Over the same period of time that US trade policy has hollowed out the middle class manufacturing job base, US education policy has also make it harder and harder for the children of middle class families to get good education.
When I went to college in the 1960s, America’s new suburbs were investing phenomenally in public schools. State universities even the best like California and Michigan were broadly affordable. Private schools in most communities outside New England were for those who thought social snobbery was more important than learning. Parents did not hire tutors to enable their children to do better on the College Boards. Kids didn’t come out of college with crippling levels of student debt. Yes, rural schools were often quite poor. And the stain of segregated, sub-par education for African-Americans was shameful. But American public education remained a strongly democratizing force. With a little federal assistance and intervention, we were confident in1965 that the remaining underserved students could be brought into the mainstream.
That educational world today seems hopelessly far away and utopian. Education has now become a powerful tool for affluent parents to give their kids an edge over the children of the less affluent. Even state university tuitions often require kids to assume horrendous student loan obligations while many colleges colluded with lenders to steer students to expensive equivalents of “subprime” mortgages predatory lending on campus.
In California what was once the nation’s leading public educational system has been so devastated that my own organization, the Sierra Club, cannot recruit mid-career employees from out of state because they conclude they would have to put their kids in private schools. Education in the inner cities, where most minority children go to school, is worse than it was in 1960.
The whole “school choice” movement is premised on the notion that it is parents not the community who need to see that their own kids get a good education. And while Congress and the President agreed that “no child should be left behind” it is obvious that neither party meant it since none of the underlying social and financial pressures that leave children behind were addressed in the bill of that name.
If Robert Reich is correct, and a competitive America must have educational results that look more like Korea’s than those in Watts, it’s clear that America’s leaders over the past 20 years have not been getting us ready to compete as a nation, against the world. They have been restructuring education to foster more cutthroat, winner take all competition among Americans and to make certain that the children of America’s elite got a solid head start in that competition.
That won’t help us in a world in which we are no longer undisputed top dog.
Another critical, and problematic, ingredient in America’s world role is our largely unchallenged global military supremacy. Has defense policy in the last decades helped or hindered the task of bringing us together as one people?
Internally, America’s armed services are one of our tremendous solidarity success stories. They are unquestionably the most effectively racially integrated institutions in the nation, and military leaders regularly advocate policies like affirmative action designed to help the rest of America catch up.
But in late 20th century America, no good deed went unpunished. After Vietnam, there was no GI Bill of Rights. Can we blame this failure on the strongly anti-military feelings of much of America during the war, and on the Democratic party’s ambivalence about military power? Perhaps.
Fast forward to Iraq. Surely we should have expected the Bush Administration and its neoconservative foreign policy elite in particular, to understand the importance of taking care of the troops?
Unfortunately, a whole series of scandals has laid bare the reality that the social safety net for America’s military families has been further shredded by the pressures of a poorly planned war strategy, and a willingness to privatized as much of the war as possible. While National Guard and Reserve troops on second and third tours of duty effectively draftees struggle to find basic health care for their families stranded behind, VA hospitals turned into a national scandal.
And when Congress proposed to restore a genuine GI Bill of Rights by increasing the sizes of college grants for veterans, both the Bush Administration and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain opposed the bill because it would encourage veterans not to reenlist if they had an economic future outside the service. (This is a voluntary army?)
It’s difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion. Everyone’s kids fought World War II. Only a few graduates of elite universities went to Vietnam. No one is forced into Iraq. An all volunteer, largely working class and minority, armed services may have been the best military choice for high tech warfare. But once we made that decision, America’s elites no longer had to suffer the consequences of their own foreign policy and military funding priorities someone else’s kids died, someone else’s kids couldn’t get health care, someone else had their families destroyed.
And when the kids of America’s elite were no longer part of the problem, finding solutions just didn’t seem as important as other things. So America’s military, through no fault of its own, has become another ingredient in the collapse of social consensus and common purpose.